WHEN it came to speaking one's mind, Russians used to fit in two categories. There were those who would air their complaints only in the company of trusted friends in the privacy of the kitchen. Then there were those who would risk all and deliver a letter of outrage - addressed, of course, to the general secretary of the Communist Party himself - right to the entrance of the Kremlin.
Certainly (the reasoning went on the second approach) if the leader really knew what was going on, he'd do something about it. It's just those functionaries around him who are keeping him in the dark, a feeling that goes back to the days of the czars.
Either way, the Russians have never lacked for opinions. But these days, no one need cry helplessly into his borscht over the latest government-perpetrated outrage. For these are the days of speaking out, in public, in mass protests, or in small clusters on the sidewalk, or simply on your own.
``I tell you, joint ventures are just a trap invented by the West to steal all our natural resources,'' a middle-aged blonde woman insisted, finger wagging, to a small crowd at the Moscow News outdoor ``discussion club.'' It's the place to go in the Soviet capital for a quick scan of the hard-to-get liberal weekly and a bracing argument.
``You're crazy!'' an old man shot back. ``They know what they're doing in the West. They're the only ones who can rescue us from this so-called economy the Communists have forced on us.''
The Moscow News scene serves more as group therapy than as an outlet of opinion that might actually effect change. But in the larger arenas of Moscow's inner Ring Road or the huge squares outside the Kremlin, protests with crowds of tens, even hundreds, of thousands are now common.
The old KGB-inspired fear has evaporated; signs like ``Gorbachev is a fascist and a henchman!'' are hardly unusual. But the impact of such open protest on policies is hard to gauge. What is clear is that the protests have added a sense of urgency to the Soviet Union's intractable economic and ethnic problems - and heightened the feeling of volatility that has made President Mikhail Gorbachev wary of taking truly radical steps.
Still, the usually passive Russian people aren't ready to storm the Kremlin. But around kitchen tables and outside Moscow News, it is fashionable to talk of looming civil war. And for many, that is a more frightening prospect than ``the bad old days'' when critical thoughts were best kept to oneself.